For nearly four hours Wednesday, a joint S.C. legislative committee heard passionate debate from advocates on all sides of this question: When can someone with a criminal record get that record expunged or sealed?
“Seventy percent of all criminals are recidivist offenders,” SLED Chief Mark Keel told the lawmakers, explaining that it’s important for law officers, businesses and the general public to know who has a serious criminal past. “If you continue to expand expungement – who are you really protecting?”
But the panel at the Senate Office Building also heard pleas from former felons who’ve gone straight, have families, lead exemplary lives and who find themselves disqualified from better jobs because of a long-ago offense.
“What about the 30 percent of us who are doing a good job, and out here doing the right thing?” said Jerry Blassingame, who served prison time in the 1990s for a drug charge and went on to found a Greenville business he said now employs hundreds of people.
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Keel and Blassingame were just two of 27 varied speakers at the hearing, which chairman Sen. Karl Allen, D-Greenville, called “one of the most enlightening meetings” he’s been at since arriving in the General Assembly in 2000.
The most divergent points of view were offered by longtime victims’ rights advocate Laura Hudson, whose statements contrasted with those by Patricia Littlejohn, executive director of the S.C. Center for Fathers and Families.
“Don’t forget the victims,” Hudson told panel members, saying she opposes expanding the state’s current expungement law any further. Then, speaking of criminals, she quoted the Bible, saying, “By their fruits you shall know them.”
Asked by Allen if she believed in rehabilitation, Hudson said, “That’s a theological question.”
Littlejohn, speaking for ex-convicts who are trying to go straight and provide support for their families, said, “Many want to provide for their children but can’t because of their inability to gain employment. Having a criminal record is a major barrier.”
Levity was provided by Sen. Tom Corbin, R-Greenville, who told the people advocating for more expungement that one reason they couldn’t get jobs is because of all the illegal immigrants crossing the border. “We don’t know what they’ve done in the past, but they get a lot of jobs,” he said.
Other issues associated with expungement included what kinds of additional crimes should be eligible to be expunged, the often complex and expensive process of getting a record expunged, the question of how long a conviction should remain on the public record and what kinds of achievements a person seeking expungement should have.